Like the conceptual equivalent of Gresham’s Law, bad ideas about work keep driving out good ones.
That’s bad enough. But even worse is that Smith thinks he’s criticizing and improving on mainstream economic theory, according to which “a job isn’t treated as something inherently valuable — it’s just a conduit through which money flows from employer to employee.” So, he recommends mainstream economists look to sociology to affirm the dignity of labor.
The problem is, sociology—especially the sociology of work—is not going to give Smith what he wants.
A job is, of course, more than “a conduit through which money flows from employer to employee.” That’s just the beginning of the process, the exchange of the ability to work for a wage or salary. That’s already an enormous indignity—to be forced to have the freedom to sell one’s ability to work to a tiny group of employers who have access to the wealth to hire them. And, once the exchange is completed, people have to actually do the job—producing goods or services for their employers, who are able to appropriate the surplus workers create. Thus, in the realm of production, after having sold their ability to perform labor, workers are forced to submit to the control of employers and their hired supervisors, who subject them to whatever conditions are necessary to generate a profit. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be hired in the first place.
Whatever it takes: low wages, long hours, unsafe working conditions, little time off, constant surveillance, no say in what is produced or how it’s produced. And the list goes on.
Where’s the dignity in that?
And all Smith would have to do is read a little of the sociology of work (e.g., in Philip Hodgkiss’s essay on “The Origins of the Idea and Ideal of Dignity in the Sociology of Work and Employment,” in The SAGE Handbook of the Sociology of Work and Employment)—starting with the “classics” (Marx, Durkheim, and Weber) and continuing with the recent literature (including Harry Braverman, Michael Burawoy, and Arlie Hoschschild).
That’s not to say there’s no place for dignity in and around work. When workers band together to form a union and collectively bargain with their employers, they manage to achieve a level of dignity. And when they eliminate discrimination or bargain to expand benefits. They achieve a different kind of dignity when they are able to participate in decision-making or establish their own firms—whether in the form of cooperatives or worker-owned enterprises.
So, yes, workers can achieve dignity—not by having jobs (as Smith and other mainstream economists assert) but by struggling over the conditions of those jobs. When they assert and affirm their dignity as human beings, not because of but in spite of the fact that, within current economic institutions, they’re forced to have the freedom to work for someone else. And, even more, when they reject those institutions and become their own bosses.
As Sharon Bolton explains,
There is general consensus, though originating from many different perspectives, that dignity is an essential core human characteristic. It is overwhelmingly presented as meaning people are worth something as human beings, that it is something that should be respected and not taken advantage of and that the maintenance of human dignity is a core contributor to a stable moral order in society. However, when entering the realms of work and the complexities of exchanging labour for a wage the definitions become much less clear. In selling one’s labour does one also relinquish autonomy, freedom, equality and, often, well-being—the very ingredients of life that have been most commonly associated with human dignity.
So, yes, Smith and other mainstream economists might want to spend more time reading in and around the sociology or work. But, once they do, they’re probably not going to experience a great deal of self-worth in relation to their blithe assertions concerning the dignity of work under capitalism.